Earlier this week, I enjoyed the somewhat odd experience of speaking to the Washington chapter of the Council on Foreign Relations. I say "odd" because my own views on foreign affairs are anti-Establishment, while the CFR is the holy of holies of the Establishment elite. To aspiring young Establishmentarians, membership in the CFR is a Holy Grail, the equivalent of joining the Praetorians in Imperial Rome or, among the Masons, achieving the rank of High Wingwang or perhaps even Exalted Grand Wazoo.
I was there as part of a panel on Fourth Generation war. The Establishment would prefer not to notice the Fourth Generation, but Fourth Generation war has fastened its fangs firmly into the Establishment’s backside in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, so "attention must be paid." Sometimes that means inviting us anti-Establishment types and hoping we don’t break too much of the crockery.
The other panelists were two retired Army officers, both of whom have written some good things on Third and Fourth Generation war, and a retired Marine Corps general who served as moderator. One panelist noted the degree to which we remain stuck in the Second Generation, especially in what is taught in the various armed forces schools and staff colleges. Another took the neo-con line, predicting a "coming American century," which is about as likely as a coming Austro-Hungarian century. Surprisingly, we all agreed on one point: however good the American military may be from the battalion level down, what goes on above that level doesn’t make much sense. One panelist hit the pig right on the snout on the Air Force’s F-22 fighter; the only way we will ever be able to use it is if we first give some to whoever is fighting us.
But the most significant aspect of the session was not what any of the panelists said. It was the utter inability of the audience, distinguished members of the Council on Foreign Relations, to understand any of it. They were as bewildered as the Gadarene swine.
The problem was two-fold. First, the heart of Fourth Generation war is a crisis of legitimacy of the state, and these people are the state. They are the "policy elite," the people who influence or even decide what hornet’s nests we will next stick our nose into around the globe. Us, not legitimate? Mais monsieur, le tat c’est nous! Who could possibly doubt our right to rule? When I suggested folks like Hispanic gang members in L.A. and factory workers in Cleveland whose jobs they are helping outsource to China and India, I got blank looks. As Martin van Creveld said to me one day in my Washington office, "Everybody sees it except the people in the capital cities." The CFR is Exhibit A.
The second reason is yet more fundamental. Despite their degrees, rsums and pretensions, the Establishment is no longer made up of "policy" types. Most of its members are placemen. Their expertise is in becoming and remaining members of the Establishment. Their reality is court politics, not the outside reality of a Fourth Generation world or any other kind of world. When that world intrudes, as it did in the panelists’ remarks, the proper response is to close the shutters on the windows of Versailles.
The CFR had generously allowed me to bring a guest with me into its august precincts, a young Marine major who is doing some excellent work on how to fight Fourth Generation opponents. As we walked to the car, I said to him, "John, the next time you’re on an amphib off somebody’s coast, waiting for the order to go in, remember that these are the kind of people who will be making the decision."
"From that standpoint, I sort of wish I had not come tonight," was his reply.
There is nothing left of the vaunted Council on Foreign Relations, or of the Establishment it represents, but dead leaves and dry bones.